Will World Cup win by USA boost women's soccer?
Ad campaign to boost women's soccer takes hold as U.S. National Team takes center stage
Sixteen years ago, a 12-year-old girl in a cabin in Minnesota was one of the millions who nervously watched as the U.S. National Team lined up for penalty kicks against China in the Women's World Cup final.
That girl, Michelle Lomnicki, will again watch Team USA in the World Cup final on Sunday. She's now a 28-year-old defender for the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women's Soccer League and an advocate for her game.
The 2015 squad has a chance to rekindle the fiery women's soccer hype of 1999 that had never been seen before, or since.
With that 1999 World Cup win, the sport reached new levels of popularity in America. The championship thriller against China in California was the most-attended women's sporting event in history; afterward, a sports bra-clad Brandi Chastain graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and Mia Hamm became a household name.
Lomnicki is collaborating with soccer site The18 on a campaign to again change the game and "change the conversation about women in sports" -- a task helped exponentially by the success of the U.S. in the Cup.
"(These campaigns) can make a huge difference," Lomnicki said. "If it's given out to the right audience at the right time, it can help grow the women's game in a different light and show how much it takes for us to be where we are, especially the women on the National Team."
The18's campaign promotes the slogan "Beauty is a Beast," aiming to emphasize female players' "speed, power, grace, determination and sacrifice" rather than their looks.
"Our goal is about women's sports, with women's soccer being a great example of it," said Matt Jenkins, founder of The18. "We want to take beauty and turn it on its head, so when you think beauty you think athleticism and strength. These are qualities you see in women.
"Everyone uses the word beast to apply to men ... That same power and determination is there with women. That's what we're celebrating."
Lomnicki was featured in an ad on the site reinventing the old "sugar and spice" nursery rhyme.
The18 identifies as "one of the nation's top soccer websites," launched just over a year ago by Northwestern graduate Jenkins and Hinsdale native Pete Burridge. They were motivated by a passion for soccer -- including the women's game, since both have daughters who play -- and a business interest in its "explosive growth" in America, Jenkins said.
"We pretty quickly realized that there was a glaring gap between the attention the men's game gets globally and the focus on women's soccer," Jenkins said. "There are some pretty amazing stories on the women's side of the game, and we want to get those stories out there."
Already, there are signs that America is embracing such stories. An average of 8.4 million Americans tuned in to the semifinals victory over Germany. Women on the national teams will be featured for the first time in the FIFA '16 video game. Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers reunited to rip on a tweet by Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit that dismissed women's soccer and women's sports in general as unwatchable.
When the World Cup concludes, fans can see the tournament's stars in the NWSL, the third and most recent attempt at a female professional league in the United States.
NWSL games average a mere 4,000 in attendance, but Lomnicki said a win at the Cup could change those numbers significantly once many of the U.S. team members return to play for the league. When the National Team finished second in the 2011 Women's World Cup, there was a sharp uptick in attendance for what was then called the Women's Premier Soccer League, she said.
"The attendance basically increased twofold. Some places were sold out. That speaks volumes to how much one team can change the opinions about soccer in the United States," Lomnicki said.
Despite the minimal public attention the NWSL gets now, Jenkins believes it's part of the reason the National Team has been so consistently good.
"As a country, the U.S. has had a really successful run in women's soccer," Jenkins said. "We have a lot of advantages that we don't have on the men's side: the NWSL is the premier league for women, with players from all over the world playing in it."
The question remains: can the U.S. women revive the fervor of 1999, when nearly 18 million people watched America's shootout Cup win, and attract attention to the NWSL and its star athletes?
"I think so," Jenkins said. "There's so much talent out there, and this is a team that is fighting for every game that it wins.
"Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain are names that have been immortalized, but I do think that with the players that are on this team, from the veterans like Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan to some of the up-and-comers like Christen Press, this team has the potential to be held up in that regard."
Now it's time to see if that potential is realized Sunday night.